By Fausto Giovanny Pinto
Shoppers on Westchester Avenue can buy designer purses, teddy bears, snacks, hats and a variety of other merchandise. And that has store owners hopping mad.
Between Simpson Street and Southern Boulevard, street vendors have set up stands to hawk their merchandise right at the entrances to stores selling similar goods.
The competition from sellers who have no overhead and pay no taxes is unfair, the store owners say. They hope a resolution passed by Community Board 2 will help pressure police to force the street sellers to move. The resolution calls for more police attention to vendors who defy city rules about where and when they can sell.
“On one of my busiest days, Valentine’s Day, some guy comes parks his van right in front of my store and sells teddy bears, flowers, and gift baskets–the same stuff I sell,” griped Ralph Betesh, the owner of Double Discount, a department store at the corner of Westchester Ave and Simpson Street. “I pay taxes, rent, and employ people. He is taking away from me.”
The stretch of Westchester Avenue where the conflict is centered is attractive to the vendors because of the traffic generated by the Simpson Street subway stop.
“This is the best spot for my business because of the buses and trains,” said Basurto Gonzalo, a licensed food vendor from Mexico who sells roasted peanuts. “I moved once across the street to Southern Boulevard and there was no people there.”
Business owners say the street merchants crowd the sidewalk. And they say they get ticketed for the trash the vendors leave on the sidewalk and street.
Therno Dillow, who manages Baskin Robbins, resents paying tickets for messes he says he has no hand in creating. Dillow recalls an altercation he had with an ice cream vendor in front of his store. “I told him ‘Why you come here and sell ice cream when I sell ice cream,’ and he wanted to fight me.”
While city rules allow food to be sold any time, vendors aren’t supposed to sell general merchandise on the street Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
By 3 o’clock on a recent balmy Friday, vendors offering everything from cotton candy to costume jewelry and winter accessories began setting up and selling.
A man selling cellphone accessories, hats and gloves said he and the others set up after 3 to avoid being approached by cops telling them to leave. (Police change shifts at 4.) The vendor, who declined to give his name, said he has been selling in the area for nine years.
“It’s still risky to set up there because you can get tickets from the cops, but I take that risk because it’s busier over there, and I have a family,” he said.
In an effort to resolve the conflict, representatives from Community Board 2 and the Southern Boulevard Business Improvement District, met with storeowners and local police officials at State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. office in February to discuss ways to keep everyone content. Although street vendors were invited to attend, only two showed up.
Medina Sadiq, executive director of the Southern Boulevard BID, thinks the competition from vendors is unfair, and agrees with the store owners, who pay a fee to support the BID, that police should get tougher with vendors.
“They are losing to unfair competition,” Sadiq said. “The owners pay assessment fees for the BID and all kinds of money and taxes of their own. These people pay nothing.”
One proposal being floated calls for moving vendors to other locations, such as Crames Square, between 163rd St. and Bruckner Boulevard, which is owned by the city’s Parks Department.
Another would allow the BID to organize and certify the vendors, many of whom are unlicensed immigrants.
But Bill Feldman, President of the BID, said, “Once you say yes to a few, everyone comes.”
Captain Philip Rivera, the commander of the 41st Precinct, disputed business owners’ claims that his officers aren’t doing enough. They enforce the law, he said, adding, “We can’t send mixed messages by letting some people vend and some people not.”
That same Friday afternoon, police could be seen patrolling the area in patrol cars and on foot, but none were seen approaching the vendors.
Not everyone in the stores thinks the vendors should be sent away. Lifelong local resident Sully Carmona, who works at Liberty Tax Service on Westchester Ave, says she sympathizes with the vendors who often come in and file taxes as self-employed street vendors.
“What do they want them to do, stop making money? It’s an honest living. They aren’t selling drugs or begging for money,” she said.
Stephanie Zambrano, who works at Sight and Style Optical, said she doesn’t fear competition from vendors selling counterfeit sunglasses.
“People who want the real thing come here,” she said.